I wandered over to the Mojave Air and Space Port on Tuesday afternoon for the spaceport’s Board of Directors’ meeting to discover it had been canceled due to a lack of sufficient business to put on the agenda. That was the official explanation, anyway. I think everyone is just on vacation, which is a smart move at this time of year.
But, that doesn’t mean that nothing is going on. Oh, things are happening, all right. Big, mysterious things. I went back to my car, cranked the AC to 11, and drove around America’s first inland spaceport to check out what was going on.
I saw considerable activity at the Pool Building over on Poole Street (no relation). Workers were busy constructing an addition and completing a series of interior renovations. The goal is to meet a Sept. 15 deadline for opening the new community building, which the airport is overhauling at an estimated cost of nearly $2 million.
The deadline is driven by Virgin Galactic, which has invited its 600 plus millionauts to the spaceport 10 days later to get a close-up look at their ride into space. Or something. All I really know is some part of it involves use of the Pool Building. And that it is possible Sir Richard Branson will once again grace Mojave with his presence and toothy grin.
Branson doesn’t come out to Mojave all that very often, and he invites his future astronauts here even less frequently. In July 2008, he flew a group of them in for the roll out of WhiteKnightTwo. The following December, they were here to witness the roll out of SpaceShipTwo.
So, what could be planned this time? The details of the event appear to be a closely guarded secret. But, I can venture a few guesses.
Powered SpaceShipTwo Flight Test
A powered flight would be a spectacular event for customers to see, and a way for Branson to demonstrate real progress toward commercial flight. That alone would make the trip worthwhile. There are a couple of potential problems, however.
First, there’s a question of whether SpaceShipTwo will be back in powered flight by then. The April 29 flight was to have been the first in a series of tests leading to a flight into space by the end of the year. Officials hoped to resume powered flights in early to mid-June. They expected SpaceShipTwo to be deep into its test flight program by the time everyone gathered in Mojave at the end of September.
That clearly hasn’t happened. In the nearly 15 weeks that have followed, prime contractor Scaled Composites has managed two SpaceShipTwo glide flights, both of which appear to have been to train Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot David Mackay. It’s unclear when powered flights will begin again.
There’s a more fundamental issue with bringing clients out to watch Scaled light the candle on SpaceShipTwo. That is, it would be a flight test. Those are not to be taken lightly. There is always the possibility that something will go seriously wrong. So, does Virgin really want to risk having its passengers, who have been given numerous assurances about SpaceShipTwo’s safety, see something potentially disturbing?
These are cool things to see, and the risk is much lower. But, this would be a step backwards given the powered flight that occurred back in April. It would raise more questions than it would answer about how things are progressing.
This would probably be worth the price of coming out here, but it has the same basic risk as the powered flight: it had better work, or the whole exercise could backfire in the worst possible way.
Less than three weeks after SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight, Scaled Composites blew up an engine on the test stand. The nitrous oxide tank burst, the test stand was wrecked, and the rocket motor casing and nozzle went sent flying off across the desert. According to Scaled, this was all part of a plan to test the fuel grain to destruction using an experimental, non-flight engine in order to gather valuable data about failure modes.
I was skeptical of this explanation when they came out with it, a full three days after the May 17 test. Everything I’ve heard and seen about the incident since that day has only deepened my doubts. Suffice to say, if it was not the intentional destruction of a non-flight engine, then this project is in much worse shape than I thought.
Meanwhile, rumors of continued problems with the propulsion system persist. The latest are that the engine in its flight configuration hasn’t been fired to full duration, and that it lacks sufficient power to get SpaceShipTwo all the way to space with any sort of payload.
Mark Sirangelo of the Sierra Nevada Corporation, which builds the engine, denied that to me when I asked about it during the NewSpace 2013 conference two weeks ago. But, the stories are persistent and my sources have been accurate in the past. Until I hear and see otherwise, my doubts will remain.
Virgin Galactic could put these rumors to rest by releasing a video of a full-scale, full-duration engine hot fire that outside propulsion experts would be able to easily evaluate for performance. As near as I can tell, we haven’t seen one of those since the initial engine tests four years ago.
Interior Layout Unveiled
Virgin might take the occasion to unveil a full mockup layout of the passenger cabin. And it would be something they could do inside the Pool Building over on Poole Street (no relation). Maybe they’ll dress up the customers in spacesuits and have them sit inside the cabin for pictures.
It would be fun, but would that alone really be worth trekking out to the High Desert? Maybe.
Keeping the Customers Happy
One of the intriguing aspects of this entire enterprise revolves around how patient Virgin’s customers will continue to be as things move along. Some of them have been waiting for eight years to fly, and their frustrations with the delays and Branson’s unrealistic assurances (flights are always 18 months away) have occasionally boiled over in the press.
Virgin has done its best to keep them happy, inviting them to special events and creating a feeling they are part of an elite club that forms the vanguard of a new space age. The Virgin Group aggressively cross sells its other properties and services to this captive group of high net worth individuals.
Late last year, Branson entertained two groups of his future millionauts over two weeks at his private retreat on Necker Island. Customers were given numerous assurances about SpaceShipTwo amidst all the merriment and displays of immense wealth. The customers went away happy, and Branson made a small fortune (a week on Necker is pricey with a capital “P”).
By the time everyone gathers in Mojave at the end of September, another 10 months will have passed, and all the reassurances will likely have proven somewhat hollow. Other than having an abundance of sand and sun, Mojave is about as far away from Necker Island as you can get. The town is not exactly a destination spot.
Virgin will need to show its customers something really interesting and demonstrate some real progress on getting SpaceShipTwo into commercial flight to justify the trip out here. If all they can point to is one powered flight five months earlier and yet more assurances that all is well, that probably won’t do it.